Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Matheson, Richard

 Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

(1926-2013) US author of stories, novels, filmscripts and teleplays, whose work combines elements of sf, fantasy and suspense, but is coloured darkly by a mood of paranoid Dark Fantasy. His first published story, "Born of Man and Woman", appeared in F&SF in 1950 and was hailed as a groundbreaking sf mutant tale, even though he had not written it with the sf market in mind. The story of a freak child who schemes to escape its imprisonment by its parents, it introduced the theme that dominates most of Matheson's fiction: the individual alone in a hostile Universe, trying to survive. It served as the title story of his first collection, Born of Man and Woman (coll 1954; with 4 stories cut vt Third from the Sun 1961), whose 17 stories showed his mastery at achieving a sense of realism through simple descriptions rendered in sleek, economical prose.

RM's first two novels, Someone Is Bleeding (1953) and Fury on Sunday (1953), are crime tales but, like his later Ride the Nightmare (1959), they abound with concealed identities, hidden pasts and moments of horror that shock characters out of their hitherto secure worldviews. The notion of the ordinary world turning unexpectedly menacing serves also as a basis for his first two sf novels. I Am Legend (1954; vt The Omega Man: I Am Legend 1971) is the story of the last mortal in a near-future world ravaged by a plague that has turned everyone else into Vampires: its power lies in its ingenious inversion of traditional vampire-story morality, in that the hero is ethically as suspect as the vampires. The Shrinking Man (1956) is concerned with a character exposed to a toxic cloud who begins shrinking irreversibly in size and finds the ordinary objects of daily life he hitherto took for granted becoming dangerous to his existence (see Great and Small). Both novels display the free blending of genres that distinguishes much of RM's writing.

A Stir of Echoes (1958) introduced a theme that recurs in several of RM's novels: paranormal experience. A domestic drama in which a man discovers that the upsetting visions destroying his life and throwing his sanity into doubt are caused by the psychic residue left in his house by an unsolved neighbourhood murder, it is both a period paranoid fantasy on the dark underbelly of suburban life and a precursor of later works that feature more overt depictions of paranormal phenomena. In Hell House (1971) a team of occult investigators seeks the source of supernatural power that slaughtered previous teams who investigated a notorious Haunted Dwelling. The clumsily written erotic horror novel Earthbound (1982 as by Logan Swanson; text restored as by RM 1989 UK) tells of a Succubus who siphons energy from victims in order to attain physical form and seduce them. These dark tales are counterbalanced by optimistic and often romantic later works. Bid Time Return (1975; vt Somewhere in Time), which won a World Fantasy Award, concerns a Love that transcends time and unites the souls of two people separated by a century. What Dreams May Come (1978) is an Afterlife fantasy supposedly drawn from reports of near-death experiences. RM has outlined the metaphysical underpinnings of his interest in the afterlife and psychic phenomena in a nonfiction book, The Path: Metaphysics for the 1990s (1993).

RM's best-known work is his short fiction. Most of his stories have been collected in The Shores of Space (coll 1957), Shock! (coll 1961; vt Shock 1: Thirteen Tales to Thrill and Terrify 1979), Shock II (coll 1964), Shock III (coll 1966), Shock Waves (1970), Shocks IV (coll 1980 UK) and Richard Matheson: Collected Stories (coll 1989). His fiction output dwindled considerably in the late 1960s and 1970s, during which time he devoted his efforts to writing for tv and Cinema. RM's earliest screen credits were adaptations of his novels. I Am Legend was filmed as L'Ultimo Uomo Della Terra (1964; vt The Last Man on Earth), but RM disavowed its rewritten screenplay; it was filmed again as The Omega Man (1971), scripted by others and disliked even more by RM. The Shrinking Man was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) from his script and won a Hugo Award in 1958. RM also did (among much other tv work) 14 screenplays for The Twilight Zone and scripted the Kolchak Movies. His most interesting work has debatably been his adaptations from other writers, particularly Burn Witch Burn (1961), a treatment of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife (1943), and his renderings of Edgar Allan Poe's stories for Roger Corman, among them The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). But his collaboration with William F Nolan on the teleplay for Trilogy of Terror (1975 tvm), based on three of his own stories, and adaptations of Hell House (as The Legend of Hell House [1973]) and Bid Time Return (as Somewhere in Time [1980]) are also notable.

Further RM screenplays of fantasy note include: Master of the World (1961), adapted from the novel by Jules Verne; an episode of Thriller; several 1960s horror movies, such as The Comedy of Terrors (1963), Fanatic (1965), Die! Die! My Darling (1966), The Devil's Bride (1968) and De Sade (1969); an episode of the Technofantasy The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966); a Star Trek episode (1967); two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970); Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971 tvm); a tv pilot, Ghost Story (1972 tvm); Dracula (1973 tvm); other 1970s tv horror movies, such as Dying Room Only (1973 tvm), Scream of the Wolf (1974 tvm), The Stranger Within (1974 tvm), Dead of Night (1976 tvm) and The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1978 tvm); The Martian Chronicles (1980 tvm); the horror movie Jaws 3-D (1983) with Carl Gottlieb; two segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) (RM was credited author of the segments based on his tv scripts); an episode of Amazing Stories; an episode (1986) of the revived Twilight Zone as by Logan Swanson; a biopic about L Frank Baum, The Dreamer of Oz (1990 tvm); and a segment of Rod Serling's Lost Classics (1994 tvm), adapting a Rod Serling story.

RM returned to fiction writing in the 1990s with Westerns, among them Journal of the Gun Years (1991) and The Gunfight (1992). Now You See It (1995), a Locked Room mystery in a stage-magic ambience, shows that he has not lost his interest in paranoid scenarios centred on deceptive identities and false realities. RM's awareness of the very qualities by which his work is recognized is most evident in 7 Steps to Midnight (1992), a suspense thriller and self-conscious pastiche in which the protagonist becomes embroiled in a series of interlinked intrigues that he realizes are taken from the plots of the many different sf, fantasy, horror, crime and romance novels he reads. [SD]

other works: The Beardless Warriors (1960); Through Channels (1989 chap); Shadow on the Sun (1994); By the Gun (coll 1994); The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok (1996).

as editor: The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories (anth 1985), with Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh.

further reading: Richard Matheson: He is Legend: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography (1984 chap) by Mark Rathbun and Graeme Flanagan.

Richard Burton Matheson


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.